Travellers struggle to find a way home from Madrid airport

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Thousands of European travellers gathered Monday at Madrid airport, which has been spared by the volcanic ash cloud disrupting flights across the continent, in an attempt to return home from holidays or fly away to other continents.

"I'm trying to get to New York for work so I've driven from the UK for about 18 hours to get here to get a flight, and I'm trying to change it at the moment to get an earlier one," Ralf, a British passengers in his 30s from Cambridge, told AFP as he stood in line at a ticket counter.

He left his car at a parking lot and will have to make the drive back to Britain on his return.

Madrid's Barajas airport, Europe's fourth busiest, has been one of the few major hubs on the continent to remain open since the eruption last week of Iceland's Eyjafjoell volcano triggered the biggest flight disruption since the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Seventeen airports in northern and eastern Spain, including Barcelona, were closed for several hours on Sunday but reopened after the ash cloud moved away.

A French theatre troupe was struggling to find a way to return home to the the eastern city of Besancon after completing a tour of Puerto Rico as their their flight from Madrid to Geneva was cancelled.

"We find ourselves in the dark with no information, we do not know what to do at all, how long we will have to wait, if we should rent a car or a bus," said Julien, a member of the troupe.

The group has ruled out returning home by train because of a railway strike in France and because it would be too expensive and take too long, he added.

But then a female member of the troupe arrived and excitedly informed them that a minibus home would cost 1,700 euros (2,300 dollars), but the option was quickly ruled out as too expensive by the rest of the gang.

Discouraged, she decided to lie down on a pile of suitcases at Barajas new Terminal 4 to take a nap.

Silvia, a German tourist in her 40s, was in the same situation as the theatre troupe.

"We took off from Puerto Rico for Madrid and will probably stay at a hotel because we need a flight to Berlin and my girlfriend needs a flight to Frankfurt and we don't know when we will get one," she said.

Morgane, a French tourist who is heading to South America for a four-month backpacking trip, was more relaxed.

She left Toulouse with a ticket on for Mexico via London but now finds herself in Madrid.

"Suddenly since Friday I have been rerouted on another flight. I was to fly on British Airways and now I am scheduled to go on Iberia and Mexicana," she said.

Spanish flag carrier Iberia has hired 79 buses since the volcanic ash cloud began disrupting air travel on Thursday to to take stranded passengers from Spain to Brussels, Geneva, Munich, Paris and Venice, a company spokeswoman said.

The company has also programmed extra flights to Rome, which has also remained open, and was able to re-route 4,000 passengers this way, she added.

Spanish rail company Renfe sold 9,000 more tickets on Sunday then what would normally be expected for the day, a company spokesman said.

It boosted its service to the northern province of Cantabria from where ferries depart to Portsmouth in southern England to help British passengers arriving in Spain to get home, he added.

Earlier Monday Spanish Transport Minister Jose Blanco said the country's airport would be used to get 70,000 stranded Britons home, and he had proposed a similar service to France and Germany who have hundreds of thousands of passengers stuck around the world.

Taxi drivers were among one of the few smiling at Madrid's Barajas airport.

"I have colleagues who left with clients to Paris, Brussels or Copenhagen for 1,700 euros. That is one hell of a trip. With that I can feed my children," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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